Invitation to My Dissertation Lecture, August 29th

To all in the D/FW area interested in the topic, I would like to extend an invitation to participate in my dissertation lecture. My dissertation is entitled, “Constructed Subjectivities and a ‘Thick’ Account of Agency: A Foucauldian Dialogue with Douglass, Fanon, and the Augustinian-Franciscan Tradition.” The lecture shall begin at 6:30pm at the University of Dallas, Gorman Faculty Lounge (#6 on the campus map) on Monday, August 29th. A brief question and answer period and a reception shall follow the lecture. If you are interested, promise that you won’t throw tomatoes or any other objects, and can make it, I would love to see you there! You may read the dissertation abstract here.


Notes from Discipline and Punish: How Intentional Tactics Become Unintentional Strategies Producing Subject-Objects

Foucault is well-known for his ability to draw out and bring into full view the double-sidedness of discourses, institutions, historical events, and socio-cultural practices. This is precisely what he does in his analyses of the inescapability of power relations, the social construction of subjectivities, and the often surprising manifestations of counter-hegemonic resistance. For example, in Discipline and Punish, Foucault retraces the genealogy of the modern prison system and argues that the primary intention (i.e. tactic) of its beginning phase, namely, the rehabilitation of the criminal, was eventually eclipsed by what the prison system actually produces, delinquents—a new class of individuals that can be more easily monitored, isolated, and controlled.[1] As to reducing crime, the prison system has failed; neither has it meet its goal of rehabilitating and reforming inmates. Yet, failures to meet its tactical aims have morphed into numerous “successful” strategies which now seem ineradicable from modern society. As Foucault explains,

the prison, apparently “failing,” does not miss its target; on the contrary, it reaches it, in so far as it gives rise to one particular form of illegality in the midst of others, which it is able to isolate, to place in full light and to organize as a relatively enclosed, but penetrable milieu. It helps to establish an open illegality, irreducible at a certain level and secretly useful, at once refractory and docile; it isolates, outlines, brings out a form of illegality that seems to sum up symbolically all the others, but which makes it possible to leave in the shade those that one wishes to—or must tolerate. This form is, strictly speaking, delinquency.[2]

Foucault then speaks to the way that the carceral system produces delinquents and how these subjectivities become objects of knowledge, which then become politically useful to the administrators of society. Delinquency is

an effect of penality (and of the penality of detention) that makes it possible to differentiate, accommodate and supervise illegalities. […] it [delinquency] is an illegality that the “carceral system,” with all its ramifications, has invested, segmented, isolated, penetrated, organized, enclosed in a definite milieu, and to which it has given an instrumental role in relation to other illegalities.[3]

Delinquents can, for example, serve as informants. Likewise, because of their prison record, which of course follows them for the rest of their lives, they are easily monitored, tracked, and in many cases, owing to the stigma of a criminal record, locked into the lower socio-economic strata of society. Recidivism is, of course, common with delinquents; but such a phenomenon is part of the feedback loop necessary for the proper functioning of the carceral system. The delinquent, no longer viewed primarily as an offender but as “pathologized subject,”[4] simultaneously functions as an object of knowledge; and with these new knowledges, we see the rise of new sciences such as criminology ever-engaged in classifying, categorizing, codifying, and dissecting the various species of aberrant “souls.”[5] With the modern prison’s production of its new subjects, delinquents, we have a clear example of how intentional tactics and unintended strategies coexist, combine, conflict, and while working at cross purposes with one another, construct a mechanism so firmly entrenched in our social consciousness that we are unable to imagine an alternative to replace it.


[1] As Kevin Jon Heller explains, Foucault uses the terms “tactics” and “strategies” to mark whether or not an action is intentional. “[T]actics” are the intentional actions carried out in determinate political contexts by individuals and groups; “strategies” are the unintentional—but institutionally and socially regularized—effects produced by the non-subjective articulation of different individual and group tactics. Both tactics and strategies involve power, because both create social change; only strategies, however, involve non-subjective power (“Power, Subjectification, and Resistance in Foucault,” 87–8).

[2] Foucault, Discipline and Punish, 276–77.

[3] Ibid., 277.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Regarding the “carceral system” and its production of new knowledges, Foucault writes, “[w]e have seen how the carceral system substituted the ‘delinquent’ for the offender, and also superimposed upon juridical practice a whole horizon of possible knowledge” (ibid.).

Loïc Wacquant on the Causes of American Anti-intellectualism: Mammon-worship, Disunity, Puppetry, Fragmentation and Escapism

French sociologist Loïc Wacquant, professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, traces four causes of present-day American anti-intellectualism.  Not surprisingly, topping the list is America’s worship of the dollar.  Elaborating on this point, Wacquant explains,

[t]he first is the unquestioned supremacy of economic over cultural capital in the American field of power, a supremacy that is arguably more pronounced today than at any time in the past half-century. Few modern societies abide by rules of social competition and access to positions of authority that so strongly favor money over knowledge, the wallet (porte-monnaie) over the pen (porte-plume), and give such abrupt precedence to big business over big ideas. The hegemony of the haves is virtually complete when the paradigm of the market imposes itself upon the totality of human activities and needs, from the arts to the media, publishing, health, and education (the fact that these are referred to as “industries” testifies to this), and is elevated to the dignity of a collective ideal at the highest reaches of a state exhorted by its head to transform itself into a mere service provider for taxpayers.[1]

(Forgive my jumping-to-related-current-readings tendencies, but that’s how things go in blog posts). Although I have not finished it yet, Philip Goodchild’s conclusions in his excellent book, Capitalism and Religion: The Price of Piety, likewise attest to the all-pervasiveness of the market paradigm on our human being-in-the (post)modern world. As he engages Nietzsche’s critique of reason and his discussion of the “murder of God,” Goodchild unearths the new horizon, the new sun to which we have chained ourselves, namely, money.

The meaning of the murder of God, that is, the emergence of a secular worldview with a corresponding affirmation of atheism, is that God is no longer required to play a foundational role in organizing humanity’s activity in relation to reality. The murder of God therefore reflects a shift in pieties. God has stopped paying us our ordered existence; or rather, there is another god who pays us, who responds more immediately, directly and tangibly to our prayers: Mammon.[2]

One could make several comments on this fruitful passage (and I recommend highly Goodchild’s book); however, let’s return to Wacquant’s four causes. In addition to our new god, Mammon, what else has brought us to disparage the life of the mind and contemplative pursuits? The second cause for enthusiastic American misologism is that progressive intellectuals are, on the one hand, “severely handicapped by the debilitation of the organizational vehicles liable to enable them” to effect social change and to engage in (reasoned, if such is possible these days) public debate, and on the other hand, the lack of unity and bickering among various activist groups themselves. In other words, in addition to the absence of a strong left-wing party, those advocating for equal rights etc. for their group or cause end up following “their particular(istic) strategy, and [aim] at distinct goals without sufficient concern for the synergy of agendas and the overall coherence of their lines of action.”[3]

Third, there is the reality of large numbers of intellectual puppets, that is, so-called intellectuals—members of various think tanks on the “Hill”—who produce so-called scientific, scholarly, “reports” for the purpose of reinforcing “the accepted wisdom of the moment” and presenting “a veneer of rationality” to their own public policies.

The new advisers to the Prince salaried by the Manhattan Institute and the Heritage Foundation possess all the trappings—the hexis, the language, and the credentials—of the academic, but they lack the one attribute that makes (or made) the latter troublesome: the capacity to formulate his or her own questions and to seek answers with total freedom, no matter where this leads her. Henceforth, the think tanks and the schools of public policy that serve as their transmission belt within the academic institution are there to stand guard and protect the American dominant class from the impertinent questioning of critical reason.[4]

The fourth cause of America’s anti-intellectual atmosphere is found in the self-absorbed, inwardly turned university community itself, occupied with its own inconsequential “intestinal controversies” and filled with university “professionals,” that is, “expert[s] possessed of a neutral body of knowledge reduced to its technical dimension.”[5] Given this splintered, fragmented milieu, where cross-disciplinary pollination is anathema, serious collegial dialogue within disciplines is rare, and narrow “professionals” abound, it is no wonder that

the mass of academics feel justified to cast aside any and all civic or moral engagement beyond their narrow domain of expertise by invoking the professional imperative of neutrality, for which the precepts of positivist epistemology serve as a convenient philosophical G-string.[6]

Wacquant does have a way with words, doesn’t he? And I thought my dissertation was provocative!


[1] Wacquant, “The Self-Inflicted Irrelevance of American Academics,” Academe 82 (1996), 19.

[2] Goodchild, Capitalism and Religion, 27.

[3] Wacquant, “The Self-Inflicted Irrelevance of American Academics,” 20.

[4] Ibid., 20.

[5] Ibid., 21.

[6] Ibid.

Part II: Un-Masking Marauders à la Augustine and Foucault

In his book, Discipline and Punish, Foucault discusses at great length how modern scientific discourses (and their attendant practices) are employed to further a rhetoric of progress and to mask new forms of violence inherent in modern socio-political institutions such as the modern judicial and prison systems. According to Foucault’s account, although by beginning of the nineteenth century the great theatrical displays of physical punishment—the tortured body—had disappeared,[1] “a trace of ‘torture’” can still be found “in the modern mechanisms of criminal justice—a trace that has not been entirely overcome, but which is enveloped, increasingly, by the non-corporeal nature of the penal system.”[2] Now that the body is no longer drawn and quartered, on what, if not the body, is punishment carried out? “The expiation that once rained down upon the body must be replaced by a punishment that acts in depth on the heart, the thoughts, the will, the inclinations.”[3]

Foucault is not claiming that modern punishment in no way involves the body; rather, his analyses help us to see that the “objects” of punishment have changed and the extent of its reach has been broadened considerably. Crimes are certainly still juridical objects of concern, even if certain former offenses are no longer categorized as crimes (for example, blasphemy). However, from another perspective, our understanding of the nature of crime as an object of concern for penal practice has been transformed radically. That is, we still pass sentences on certain acts defined as illegal and criminal; however, “judgment is also passed on the passions, instincts, anomalies, infirmities, maladjustments, effects of environment or heredity; acts of aggression are punished, so also, through them, is aggressivity; rape, but at the same time perversions; murders, but also drives and desires.”[4] As a result, judges are no longer competent to pass judgment on their own; they must instead call upon a host of “subsidiary judges” to aid them.  This “scientifico-juridical complex,” including psychiatrists, medical doctors of various sorts, prison specialists, and educationalists, not only helps the judge decide what kind of punishment shall be enacted but whether the act is punishable at all.  In other words, if the person who committed the act is judged mad, then all talk of crime disappears and medical treatment rather than punishment is required.

This modern scientifico-judicial apparatus does much more than simply mete out sentences; it discerns what kind of “soul” a person has, speculates on how one’s past influences one’s present, and then predicts what future actions one is likely to commit. Through the complex interplay of scientific, medical, psychiatric, and legal discourses and their accompanying practices, new subjectivities are produced such as the delinquent and the pervert. Moreover, the production of new subjectivities goes hand in hand with the emergence of new scientific discourses, and the two serve to mutually reinforce one another. Not only is a greater role in the sentencing process given to psychiatric experts, but criminologists likewise come on the scene, defining new subjectivities and new “scientific” objects of study. According to Foucault, those trained in psychiatry, criminal anthropology, and related fields engage in this subject- and object-making activity as follows:

by inscribing offenses in the field of objects susceptible of scientific knowledge, they provide the mechanisms of legal punishment with a justifiable hold not only on offenses, but on individuals; not only on what they do, but also on what they are, will be, may be. The additional factor of the offender’s soul, which the legal system has laid hold of, is only apparently explanatory and limitative, and is in fact expansionist.[5]

In other words, punishment does not cease with the completion of one’s prison term; rather, one’s new identity remains fixed long after the term has been served via strict monitoring, mandatory medical or psychiatric treatment, counseling, as well as restrictions on living, educational, and employment possibilities. Now that criminals are objects of science and legal punishments are intertwined with “judgments of normality, attributions of causality, assessments of possible changes, [and] anticipations as to the offender’s future,” punishment expands into long-term treatment with the hope of curing the criminal. A new truth game has been born; although bloodless, its rules, discourses, and practices create living subjects as objects. In addition to these embodied subjects, another “body” is formed—“[a] corpus of knowledge, techniques, ‘scientific’ discourses,” which together“ becomes entangled with the practice of the power to punish.”[6] Having broadened its cabinet to including medical experts and specialists of various sorts, the judicial system presents itself as apolitical, dispassionate, and relying upon objective science to render its determinations. Thus, like Augustine, Foucault issues a warning, calling us to be alert to the ways in which the rhetoric of scientific progress is at work in our society where we might least expect it. Although it is highly unlikely that any of us would want to return to medieval torture as a means of punishment for crime, Foucault’s analyses of the genealogy of the modern prison system help us to see that our “contemporary mechanisms of power,” although less spectacular, “are no less coercive. In attempting to rehabilitate the whole individual, the modern judicial system uses its own methods of violence and force, only it administers them in such a way that they no longer appear violent or forceful.”[7]


[1] Foucault, Discipline and Punish, 15.

[2] Ibid., 16.

[3] Ibid.  In characteristically vivid prose, Foucault further describes this new phase of bloodless, less intense yet more extensive punishment as follows:  “[t]he old partners of the spectacle of punishment, the body and the blood, gave way. A new character came on the scene, masked. It was the end of a certain kind of tragedy; comedy began, with shadow play, faceless voices, impalpable entities. The apparatus of punitive justice must now bite into this bodiless reality” (ibid., 16–17).

[4] Ibid., 17.

[5] Ibid., 18–19.

[6] Ibid., 23.

[7] Schuld, “Augustine, Foucault, and the Politics of Imperfection,” 19.

A Public Intellectual Vision for Education: On Redeeming the Time

My friend and colleague, J. Douglas Macready , recently posted on a unique educational program in place at Bard College. Here is an excerpt from his post, “Redeeming the Time”:

“According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics , 7.2 million people were either in jail, prison, or on parole by the end of 2009.  A more startling statistic is that 1 out of every 32 adults in America is incarcerated. Most of those people will eventually be released (about 275,000 people per year) and at least 65% of them will be re-incarcerated within 3 years. Can a college education change these statistics? Bard College thinks it can, and they are doing something about it. They are bringing a high quality liberal arts curriculum into prisons and transforming lives.”

If only more universities had such a vision! To learn more about this program, check out the videos posted at The Relative Absolute. I also recommend highly the following books, discussing the hyper-incarceration of the US and how the punitive “right” hand of the Neoliberal State disproportionately targets and affects African Americans: Loic Wacquant, Punishing the Poor: The Neoliberal State of Social Insecurity and Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.




Part I: Un-Masking Marauders à la Augustine and Foucault

Anyone who has studied with care Augustine’s masterpiece, City of God, particularly the first five books as well as book nineteen, would, I believe, see a very socially engaged, politically astute theologian qua social critic. As I have noted in previous posts bringing Augustine and Foucault into dialogue with one another, both thinkers share a number of structural overlaps and common concerns—concerns for the poor and marginalized and suspicions about hegemonic discourses and narratives.  This is not, of course, to claim that Augustine was without his faults or that he was unaffected by his own cultural context—like all finite, historical human beings, he was socially conditioned and held certain beliefs about, for example, women that moderns and postmoderns would find problematic (at least I do). Nonetheless, the North African saint (faults notwithstanding) has much to say to us today.

For example, Augustine’s socio-political—and, of course, theological—critique of Roman glory narratives, in particular, the ways in which these narratives function as veils to mask what in any other context would be considered unjust, criminal activity are highly instructive.[1] As R.A. Markus explains, Augustine understood the term “institutions” broadly. Institutions, for example, consisted of “various customs, rites, arrangements, arts and disciplines in use among men.”[2] These institutions, of course, may be used for good or evil purposes.  Although critical of discourses and practices which inculcate desires and beliefs antithetical to key aspects of Christian faith and praxis—humility, truth-speaking, relational dependence, an acknowledgement of our finitude, and so forth—Augustine understood the need to develop institutions beneficial to society as a whole and which would promote as much harmony as possible among its various members.[3] Concomitant with this constructive social project, Augustine also engaged in a deconstructive project. That is, he was acutely aware of the need to critically examine the accepted political and religious narratives of the day, narratives whose incandescent surfaces dazzled, concealing the often violent, greedy, self-serving agenda of the political elites. Like Foucault, Augustine employs his own variant of reverse discourse and counter-hegemonic narratives in order both to unmask the ideologies at play in Roman political discourse and to put forth alternative ways of being in the world with others.

The first five books of the City of God, as Robert Dodaro observes, “constitute the core of Augustine’s critique of Roman imperium”;[4] in these opening books, Augustine analyzes “the ideology of Roman literary and ceremonial forms,” whose theoretical foundations “were found primarily in Sallust, Cicero, and Varro.”[5] In light of his own training as a rhetor and his service at the imperial court in Milan prior to his baptism and later ordination to the priesthood and bishopric, Augustine was thoroughly versed in the art of persuasion and the various ways it was used to further political objectives.  As Dodaro explains, Augustine understood that “Roman society was founded upon an extreme patriotism, a love for the patria above all else, which was promoted by means of Roman education, folklore, literature, civil religion, and theatre.”[6]

Like Augustine, Foucault also manifests concern for the marginalized of society, devoting himself to the study of prisons and mental institutions and to the ways in which these structures and their associated discourses, disciplines, and practices produce new, characteristically modern subjectivities. As Schuld explains, rather than uncovering how “rhetoric of imperial glory” masks the reality of violence and self-interest, Foucault analyzes how modern institutions and practices “garner and preserve power most effectively by relying upon a scientific sounding rhetoric of progress.”[7] With the transition from a sovereign-based political model wherein power is centralized and associated with the person of the king to a modern context wherein power is dispersed and diffused in a netlike fashion, a more “neutral,” “objective” discourse comes into play.  That is, in contrast with, for example, Roman glory narratives and their overt conspicuous appeals to the political realm, modern scientific narratives present themselves as apolitical and unbiased.[8] By “posing as a coldly antiseptic science,” modern narratives of progress hide their normative and moral judgments;[9] the more successfully the new rhetoric hides its “political leverage,” the more politically efficacious its possibilities and widespread its socially produced realities.[10]


[1] This post is indebted Robert Dodaro and Joyce Schuld’s work.  See, for example, Dodaro, “Eloquent Lies, Just Wars and the Politics of Persuasion,” and Schuld, “Augustine, Foucault, and the Politics of Imperfection.”

[2] Markus, Saeculum, ix.

[3] Ibid., ix.

[4] Dodaro, “Eloquent Lies,” 80.

[5] Ibid. On Augustine’s classical influences, see Cameron, “Cicero and St. Augustine”; Courcelle, Les Confessions de Saint Augustin dans la tradition littéraire; Bennett, “The Conversion of Vergil”; Markus, Saeculum; Bonner, “Vera Lux Illa Est Quae Illuminat: The Christian Humanism of Augustine,” in Renaissance and Renewal in Church History; Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life; MacCormack, “Sin, Citizenship, and the Salvation of Souls.”

[6] Dodaro, “Pirates or Superpowers,” 14.

[7] Schuld, “Augustine, Foucault, and the Politics of Imperfection,” 17.

[8] This is not to deny the reality of modern glory narratives such as theUnited States’ inflated talk of spreading democracy worldwide. Foucault would, presumably, recognize modern glory narratives as one of many discursive tactics employed to further the rhetoric of progress.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.